Anti-Gaming Crusader Charged With Gun-Running

Number of people killed by video games: still zero.

Number of people killed by weapons allegedly smuggled by Democratic Senator and video game industry scourge Leland Yee: unknown, but given that the FBI claims Yee conspired with crime lord Kwok Cheung “Shrimp Boy” Chow to bring $2 million worth of weapons into the country from the Philippines, and that machine guns and motherflippin’ rocket launchers were among the weapons included, I’d say the answer is much more than zero.

You should look at the criminal complaint yourself. It’s long, but it really gets cooking about Yee’s gun suppliers and schemes around page 93 or so.

The whole thing reads like a script treatment for a Chow Yun-fat movie, complete with guns, drugs, smuggling, violence, Asian organized crime syndicates, goofy nicknames, and crooked pols.

Honestly, all it needs is a handsome guy in dark sunglasses firing pistols with both hands to complete the cast and we’re ready to put this thing before the cameras. Let’s make it happen, people!

Yee was one of the more irritating critics of video games. He just plain lied about the ESRB (the organization that provides parental ratings for games) by claiming they knew about the Grand Theft Auto “hot coffee mod” when they rated the game, when of course a mod is something applied to software by a user after purchase.

He managed to create enough hysteria to push through laws criminalizing the sale of M-rated games to minors. Those laws were so blatantly unconstitutional that they were not merely struck down by the courts, but the state of California had to pay the Entertainment Software Industry over $300,000 in legal fees.

Yee’s background as a child psychologist lent a certain amount of credibility to his claims that violent videogames caused violent behavior in minors. In fact, there is no such direct link. During the same period in which game sales rose rapidly, violent crime declined.

Hey, you know what causes violent crime? Illegal weapons smuggled into America from foreign countries under the aegis of corrupt politicians.

Yee was also a notorious foe of the second amendment and critic of gun owners, which just adds a thick layer of Schadenfreude-Flavored Icing to this Layer Cake of Overdue Justice.

So, yeah, I’m just gonna sit back,  cut myself a slice, make a nice White Russian, and enjoy this one.

Some more of my posts on games and violence:

Game Violence Debate Returns to Washington

Videogames and the Family

Choosing the Right Game For Your Kids

Since comboxes are closed for Lent, you can reach me via The Twitters.

New Mozilla CEO in the Crosshairs for Prop 8 Donation

Brendan Eich, creator of Javascript. Can’t you just see the eeeeevil?

One thing you can always count on with the gay rights movement: they never miss an opportunity to slander opponents of gay marriage as “haters” and gin up a thoughtcrime fatwa at a moment’s notice. The latest target may be Mozilla’s Chief Technology Office Brendan Eich, who was just made the CEO of the company, which makes the Firefox browser.

I’m saying “may be,” because although various comboxes are alive with outrage trolls, only one irrelevant company has thus far reacted publicly. Nevertheless, a couple of grandstanding gay dudes pulling their crappy puzzle app from Firefox is generating “New Firefox CEO Generates Outrage in Gay Community!” headlines because of course it is. Stories about the outrage come first, followed by the actual outrage.

Brendan Eich’s unforgivable crime–which should destroy forever his chances of success, employment, or joy in this life or the next–was to donate $1000 in support of Proposition 8. (I know! The monster!) From now on, that’s all that will ever matter where Brendan Eich is concerned.

I mean, sure, the guy invented JavaScript and was one of the founders of Mozilla, but he holds an opinion that hurts someone’s hothouse feelings, so he must be shunned.

We’re only going to see more of this crap as support for gay marriage becomes the litmus test for Goodthink in modern America. Once they imagined it into being The Civil Rights Issue of Our Times No Seriously You Guys We Mean It!, the die was cast.

What the hell happened to us?

As usual, since comboxes are closed for Lent, direct your outrage to me via Twitter.

Facebook Acquires Oculus Rift: What Does It Mean?

Among gamers, the surprise acquisition of VR headset maker Oculus Rift by Facebook is being treated as a harbinger of the end times. Many are investing a great deal of hope in the next-gen virtual-reality tech being developed by Oculus Rift, believing it may kick gaming to the next level. To have that very tech scooped up the company at the nexus of everything awful in game design seems like a bad thing.

I’ve been down the VR-headset road before, visiting developers and manufacturers for various eyewear and head-mounted displays in the late 90s, when I was still with PC Gamer magazine. I still have a Forte VFX-1 sitting in my office (and it can be yours for the right price!). I never did like any of the tech. The visual quality was pretty low, the tracking was iffy, and the motion sickness was real. Most could only be worn for a short time before inducing headaches. If I recall correctly, I gave each a number rating in aspirin for time to, and severity of, the onset of pain.

We’re about 17 years down the road from Forte, and Oculus Rift has some incredible talent developing some remarkable tech. They may well bring to market a good product that can be used for longer periods of time with high visual and tracking quality at a low price.

But they haven’t done that yet. All we’ve seen are demos, and although the tech is impressive, the price and the long term usability and consumer appeal of the headset remains to be seen.

There is a lot more to Oculus Rift than just gaming, and the potential it offers for communication, medical, research, and other applications has yet to be fully explored. It may well be the first real step towards successful consumer-level virtual reality. Or it may be a novelty item. Clearly Facebook thinks it’s the former, since they paid $2 billion for the company.

The question is: why? What does VR have to do with social media?

Obviously, the first answer will be “games,” which are a large part of Facebook’s limited profitability. However, none of the games on Facebook would benefit at all from a VR headset. If we have to assume that the time spent using the headset should be limited (and I’m assuming that for reasons of comfort and eyesight, this will be the case), people aren’t going to don one to play Candy Crush Saga.

Does this mean Facebook intends to plunge more deeply into MMO-style gaming with social components? Perhaps, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them attempt to merge FB with some more VR-friendly World of Warcraft-clone on the decline. There are plenty to choose from, and it would give FB a bigger presence in a market with a built-in social component.

Gaming isn’t the only thing in the Oculus Rift orbit. Facebook is about human connectivity, and there may be some potential for the headset to be used for real-time 3D communication.

The bigger question is: how does Facebook see themselves? They’re basically a late evolution of the BBS concept, providing connections among friends and even strangers to … I dunno, share cat pictures? I use Facebook and enjoy sharing items of interest with a limited circle of people, and I like reading what others have to say. It’s an interesting forum. The signal-to-noise ratio is still on the acceptable side, although every new change brings it close to a tipping point where the noise will finally drown out any useful application.

Facebook, however, sees itself as more than just some kind of jumped-up BBS. They’re desperate to be the next Microsoft, Apple, Google. They want to own an ecosystem that gives them a piece everything that flows through the pipeline. Thus far, they have failed to do that, and I believe they will continue to fail at expanding beyond their limited mandate of sharing family photos and memes. I’ll freely admit I could be wrong about that. They have money and they have people’s attention. That could carry them far. It just hasn’t, yet.

They’re already losing ground with younger users, and as their user-base ages, the chance of them building an audience around a new toy like Oculus Rift declines. Their reputation in the gamer community is lower than that of Electronic Arts, The Worstest, Most Hatery Company in the World (at least according to gamers who really need to get out more).

If you want to know just what the tech community thinks of Facebook, consider that many are suggesting Oculus Rift would have been in better hands with almost any one else: Microsoft, Sony, Apple, even Electronic Arts.

Markus Perrson, creator of Minecraft, dropped his plans for an Oculus Rift version of the game the moment he heard of the acquisition, saying that Facebook “creeps him out.”

Persson is a voice that matters, and in a long post he explains the potential for VR, and the problem with the most promising VR tech falling into the hands of Facebook:

Facebook is not a company of grass-roots tech enthusiasts. Facebook is not a game tech company. Facebook has a history of caring about building user numbers, and nothing but building user numbers. People have made games for Facebook platforms before, and while it worked great for a while, they were stuck in a very unfortunate position when Facebook eventually changed the platform to better fit the social experience they were trying to build.

Don’t get me wrong, VR is not bad for social. In fact, I think social could become one of the biggest applications of VR. Being able to sit in a virtual living room and see your friend’s avatar? Business meetings? Virtual cinemas where you feel like you’re actually watching the movie with your friend who is seven time zones away?

But I don’t want to work with social, I want to work with games.

Fortunately, the rise of Oculus coincided with competitors emerging. None of them are perfect, but competition is a very good thing. If this means there will be more competition, and VR keeps getting better, I am going to be a very happy boy. I definitely want to be a part of VR, but I will not work with Facebook. Their motives are too unclear and shifting, and they haven’t historically been a stable platform. There’s nothing about their history that makes me trust them, and that makes them seem creepy to me.

And I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.

I have the greatest respect for the talented engineers and developers are Oculus. It’s been a long time since I met a more dedicated and talented group of people. I understand this is purely a business deal, and I’d like to congratulate both Facebook and the Oculus owners. But this is where we part ways.

Persson is speaking as a bit of a purist, but his assessment is dead-on. Facebook is not a stable platform. I don’t mean it’s technically unstable. I mean it’s fundamentally unstable. It has one overriding goal: to connect people to Facebook. That’s not the overriding goal of Microsoft, Apple, or Google, who have something genuine to offer: hardware, product, an operating system.

All Facebook has is, well … you. When a service is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold. Facebook’s product isn’t games or an operating environment or even a set of software tools. Facebook’s product is human eyeballs. I guess they thought a device that maximizes the experience of those very eyeballs would be a natural fit.

But if the history of Facebook tells us anything, it’s simply this: despite building a popular social platform for millions of people, they still, after all this time, haven’t figured out what to do with it. Maybe they just spent $2 billion to find that answer.

Qvadriga: Racing in Ancient Rome

In 1984, Avalon Hill released a DOS version of their classic chariot racing board game, Circus Maximus.

That was the last chariot racing strategy game released for the PC.

It looked like this:

Circus Maximus for DOS (1984), screen capture from MobyGames.com

Thirty years later, developer Turnopia reminds us what’s been missing from the gaming landscape: strong, turn-based, tactical chariot racing.

That may sound like a niche inside a niche, but racing board games in general, and chariot games in particular, have a long history filled with many venerable titles. The genre scratches an itch for a unique set of tactics, as you choose just the right moment to accelerate, slow down, maneuver, and even attack. Add in the appeal to history buffs and people who’ve seen Ben Hur a few too many times—possibly the same people—and you have something many gamers will pass by without a second glace, but a select few will grab with both hands.

“Just hang on, and stop losing so much blood!”

Qvardiga (there is no “u” in the Latin alphabet) digs deeply into history to create a rich strategy game with two levels: team management and racing. Racing is, obviously, the heart of the experience, but success on the circus depends upon good choices in between races.

Races are run on a variety of tracks spread throughout the ancient world, including Spain, Africa, Italy, and others. Within each region there are cities with unique stadiums where the races take place. The goal is to rise through the ranks earning money, improving your team, and making a good enough reputation to move on to the next, bigger city.

Each race can be run in real time or, more typically, in phases with everyone giving orders at once. The latter is the preferred method of playing, since it gives you a little time to examine the course and plan just how you’re going to approach those straights and curves.

At the beginning of each turn, you’re presented with a number of actions for your chariot driver, who is known as an auriga. He can change one, two, or even three lanes; whip the horses; shake the reins; slow down; stabilize the chariot; whip the nearest opponent; or crash into anyone to his right or left. Once everyone chooses their move, the game un-pauses and the actions play out in five-second pulses. Then you choose another move, and so on until you’re left bleeding on the track, charging to a glorious win, or limping across the finish line in shame.

The icons in the green band indicate the orders available to your racer. The band turns orange and then red as you enter curves to indicate dangerous stretches.

The interface and graphics are note-perfect: clean, simple, and appealing. Anything more would distract from the action. The tactical element is tricky to master. Timing moves is everything, and understanding your team is crucial. You also need to keep an eye on auriga who may be rivals down the road. The best way to win race 6 may be to kill a famous auriga in race 2.

This subtle interplay between the micro and macro levels extends to horses, chariots, and drivers. You build a team, but in reality you’re building one star player with a few other guys to give him a break between races. You can pump denarii into upgrades such as better chariots or horses, bet on yourself to nudge those winnings higher, and keep climbing the ladder to success in the arena as you move from city to city.

Manage and upgrade your team to win and move on to better venues.

I don’t recall ever playing a computer game that captures the unique qualities of racing board games so well. It also adds to the genre, giving it a more epic feel and greater sense of drama than static cardboard could ever achieve. It’s the work of two developers (designer and artist), and although it has a handmade quality, it doesn’t feel cheap or cut-rate.

You may think “chariot racing, for real?” and move along, but if you have any interest in turn-based tactical gaming, check out the free demo at www.slitherine.com. It’s a good reminder that not all strategy games need to be about armies, war, and death.

Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Qvadriga (Slitherine/Turnopia): $20 download, $30 boxed.

Content issues for parents: Chariot racers can attack other drivers and horses, with tiny drops of blood showing the hits. Chariots can crash and drag their drivers, with little drops of blood showing their injuries. If they are dragged too long, they may die. If they let go and try to escape, they might be hit, and then die. Horses can die as well from crashes or exhaustion. Killing a rival during a race is a good way to make sure he’s not a rival any more. None of the content is visually graphic.

[A modified version of this review appears in the July issue of Games Magazine.]

Comments are off through April. You can reach the writer via Twitter

Check Your Amazon Account…

… you may have just gotten a credit:

Here’s the story:

In December 2013, a federal court approved legal settlements by publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin in antitrust lawsuits filed by State Attorneys General and Class Plaintiffs about the price of eBooks. Those settlements resulted in credits for qualifying Kindle books purchased between April 1, 2010 and May 21, 2012.

Eligible customers do not need to do anything to receive these credits. If you are eligible, we have already calculated your credit and added it to your Amazon account. As long as you have credit remaining we will automatically apply it to your next purchase of a Kindle book or a print book sold by Amazon.com, regardless of publisher. The credit applied to your purchase will appear in your order summary. Eligible customers should have received a notification email from Amazon on March 25, 2014. You can learn more about the settlements at www.amazon.com/help/agencyebooksettlements.

I already had some credit and treated myself to this:

“Before Everything Became Automatic”

I’m working on my next magazine issue, but I wanted to share Miranda Lambert’s new song, which speaks to some of my preoccupations here at God and the Machine.

One of the constants in country music–both classic and Top 40–is nostalgia: a yearning for a lost past. It’s a profoundly conservative, deeply Christian sensibility. It’s not sentimentality, mind you, although it can devolve into cheap and empty sentiment with ease. It’s a sense that there are permanent things, and these are, if not always missed, at least worth remembering. We lost something glorious in the fall, and we go on losing things in life, and thus there is an aching inscribed in each heart for a past we can never recapture.

For us, living our time forward from birth to death, it involves a looking-back, usually at what we’ve lost. I doubt Miranda Lambert–who likely recorded this song on a digital deck, and will sell it online, and has a cellphone and a Twitter account and all the other fixtures of modern life–wants to chuck it all and go back to plugging a coin into a pay phone. But like so many of us, she senses that we left something valuable behind as we moved into the future.

I always ask the same two questions about progress: What have we gained? What have we lost?

Hey, whatever happened to waitin’ your turn
Doing it all by hand,
‘Cause when everything is handed to you
It’s only worth as much as the time put in
It all just seemed so good the way we had it
Back before everything became automatic

And then there’s this:

Boys would call the girls
And girls would turn them down
Staying married was the only way to work your problems out

File that one under “Things You Don’t Hear in Beyonce Songs.”

And here’s another recent take on holding firm to the past, this time from Dierks Bentley.

Faith, love, freedom: country’s about the last place you’ll find these words used without irony.

 

Jesus–The Revenge!: A Medieval Drama

Signs and portents warning of the destruction of Jerusalem .

The British Museum recently acquired a beautiful illuminated manuscript of a fairly obscure mystery play called Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Ihesu Crist.

In English: Mystery of the Vengeance of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Oh yeah, now we’re talking. I can see the movie poster already. “He’s back, and this time … it’s personal.” Bruce Willis, call your agent.

When we talk about Medieval “mystery” plays, we’re not talking about something like The Mousetrap. These were plays produced, most commonly by the citizenry and guilds on feast days, to illuminate mysteries of faith. It was a kind of dramatic catechism-cum-entertainment.

When Hamlet talks about an actor who can “out-Herod Herod,” he’s talking about the broad and bombastic techniques of acting common to mystery plays, where Herod was a stock villain for the Slaughter of the Innocents. In many regions–particularly England, which had a rich tradition of mystery plays until the Protestants came along and squashed them–the plays were performed on elaborate carts that served as mobile stages.

The version of Vengeance acquired by the Museum is one of the most elaborate, beautiful, and perfectly preserved medieval dramatic manuscripts we have. It was in the possession of the Dukes of Chatsworth for a couple hundred years until it was given up in lieu of estate taxes.

Doctors with the leprous Vespasian. (click to enlarge)

The manuscript is important for several reasons. Aesthetically, it’s a masterful work of 15th century illumination by Loyset Liédet, with 20 plates in pristine condition. It was commissioned by Philip of Burgundy to commemorate a specific performance of the play, so the art captures not only the scenes, but the staging and costuming of the drama as well.

Textually, it contains the most complete version of the play, which was written Br. Eustache Marcadé, a Benedictine monk who also wrote a passion play known as The Passion of Arras. The manuscript contains 14,972 lines of French verse: 1,000 more than the other surviving copy.

The action of the play covers the events leading up to the Fall of Jerusalem (the “vengeance” of the title), and the drama and miracles surrounding it. It’s length required the performance to be split over 4 days, beginning with a debate between the Virtues (Justice, Mercy, Peace and Truth) about whether God should destroy the city in revenge for the crucifixion. The debate concludes with a decision to offer the people many warnings before unleashing destruction.

On day two, Pilate sends a letter to Tiberius recounting the life of Christ, and Vespasian is cured of leprosy by Veronica’s Veil. On the third day, Nero sends Vespasian and Titus to Jerusalem to confront yet another an uprising. The last day of the play covers 69AD–the Year of the Four Emperors–and the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Vespasian.

I don’t believe there is an English translation, but I’ll keep looking.

You can view the entire manuscript at the British Museum Digitized Manuscripts page, and you should.

All This Machinery Making Modern Music

As an old progressive rock fan, I don’t have any problems with machines making music. If you want to get technical about it, most instruments are machines, so adding new technology doesn’t change things too much.

How does a robot band change the equation?

Look and listen for yourself. This is Z-Machines:

And here’s Compressorhead doing AC/DC’s “TNT.” None of them can duckwalk worth a damn.

Show me a Robot Bon Scott and I’ll be impressed.

The addition of picks and fingers and drumsticks-wielding arms make the band capable of sounds an average Earthling can’t achieve.  One drummer with 22 arms–such as that in Z-Machines–can do things even Neil Peart can’t do, but he’s no Peart.

Of course, all of this is 100% human work. The machines are were built and programmed at the University of Tokyo by team led by Kenjiro Matsuoby, and the music is by Squarepusher. Even as we do start to see more computer-composed music, those programs are also made by humans. The human element cannot be removed from the loop. In the end, you just have more machine-assisted music, and Rush, Yes, Leon Theramin, Robert Moog, and others have shown us that was possible for decades.

At least now, however, we know what the house band for Skynet will look and sound like.  Thanks Japan!

h/t: CNN